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Foreign Policy for Pragmatists: How Biden Can Learn from History in Real Time

Author: Gideon Rose

Affiliation: Foreign Affairs

Organization/Publisher: Foreign Affairs 

Date/Place: March/April, 2021/USA

Type of Literature: Journal Article

Word Count: 3540


Keywords: Liberalism, Realism, Pragmatism, History, Biden Administration, and US Foreign Policy


In this article, the author advocates for a pragmatist US foreign policy that goes beyond strict adherence to a unilateral theoretical framework in order to avoid any framework’s flaws in explanation, orientation, or foresight. He argues that in order to allow the US to see the world more clearly and work more effectively, a pragmatism that combines the features of the many and varied cognitive maps is the true American ideology that the Biden administration should adopt in its foreign policy. Gideon Rose focuses here on the cognitive maps presented by the two (and still) prevailing theories in international politics to American decision-makers regarding how to deal with the problems of today’s world or predicting its future challenges, i.e. the optimistic liberalism and pessimistic realism. In the first part, the author briefly reviews the history of the endless debate between philosophers and pioneers of the two theories over the past 300 years—since Thomas Hobbes with his pessimistic inevitable anarchy, versus John Locke with his optimistic peaceful cooperative perspective—explaining how the debate between them developed into a more scientific way in the post-World War II era. Without one of the two sides being able to defeat the other, the merit of each theory has attracted followers, but the defects of these two theories have been proven by the challenges of the 21st century until there has been growing talk for a while about “the death of the international relations theory”. He presents many practical examples of the deficiency of these cognitive maps that had been drawn for the successive US administrations regarding the type of foreign policy that should be adopted. The author affirms that US foreign policy is famous by its internal tensions, as its fits, starts and reversals do not fit easily into any single theoretical framework. For him, this pluralism has proven to be an advantage, not a defect. Because it has not consistently adopted any single approach to foreign policy, Washington has been able to avoid the worst aspects ever. Thus, the author calls upon the Biden administration to keep both facts (optimism and pessimism) in the pocket, and take them out as necessary. “The way to do so is to make theorists, not principals, the administration’s true team of rivals, forcing them to make real-world predictions and to offer testable practical advice, and then seeing whose turn out to be better in real-time. In this approach, searching for intellectual honesty is more important than ideology”. In the context of his argument, the author cites a Foreign affairs article written last year by Daniel Drezner, Ronald Krebs, and Randall Schweller in which they talked about the “death of the grand strategy” (briefed in issue No. 21 of GPC), and that today’s world is a highly interactive, complex, turbulent, and fluid in which history does not follow a straight line, that is, it is difficult to predict the future. Therefore, it is a world that does not recognize the presumed virtue of grand strategy, especially that which is managed by a single theoretical framework. So, simplified road maps are not very helpful in dealing with today’s complex international landscape. Nevertheless, this does not mean getting rid of these maps but rather calls on the new administration to find out how to use “two bad maps” at once. “Foreign policy, after all, is not cartography. It’s orienteering—racing madly through dangerous, unknown territory. And theorists aren’t mapmakers, they’re coaches: their job is to help players race better.” Therefore, the Biden administration should work to integrate the arguments of liberalism and realism together as much as possible, with absolute distrust in both, and urge theorists to make testable predictions to avoid failure in foreign policy. In the end, the author concludes that the success factor of American diplomacy throughout history is its reliance on multiple theories, the blending of multiple dogmatic administrations, and regular political turnover between liberal-optimistic and realistic-pessimistic administrations. Moreover, he urges scholars to show scientific humility while trying to foresee the future and not to be shy about recognizing the complexity of today’s world, as well as dealing with problems with greater curiosity, open minds, and flexibility. The essence of successful forecasting was combining multiple maps with good decision rules for choosing among them and incorporating different foresight techniques. Thus, Biden’s administration will not have to make a tragic choice between pessimism or optimism, realism or liberalism. Instead, it can choose pragmatism as the true American ideology. “Such an approach to foreign policy would not change the world. But it would allow the United States to see the world clearly and operate in it more effectively.”


By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA Senior Research Associate



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